Helping Each Other Walk in the Dark

There were heartbreaking stories of the end of innocence, and the harrowing lives of the poor around the world. There were funny tales about convent pranks. And there was sweet piano music asking, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” 

Standup Sisters: Border Crossings, a storytelling event held at La Roche College on March 14, featured Catholic sisters whose lives began in towns in Pennsylvania and Peru. They went on to serve the poor in the Amazon and every corner of the world over decades, and still today.

“One of the most pressing issues of our time is how we support our neighbors in need here and abroad to become the best they can be,” said Standup Sisters producer Jennifer Szweda Jordan. “The women who spoke at Standup Sisters have lived with the most vulnerable people within and outside of our borders. Their stories provide a more holistic view of the challenges and the joys of being one human family.”

Audio recordings of this event will be made available in the coming weeks. Now available is a video from the youngest member of the “Standup Sister” crew. Rhonda Miska is not yet a sister. She’s going through the steps in that process with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, based in Wisconsin. She is what’s known as a “candidate” for religious life, and she writes for U.S. Catholic, America magazine, and is part of the network Catholic Women Preach.

In Miska’s story, she answers the question: What’s it like to walk in an unknown land, on a mountain, in the dark, wearing flip flops? The Nicaraguans who invited her on an age-old religious procession taught Miska a lot about what it means to fall, and what it means to catch one another–a metaphor for being a global community.

Standup Sisters: The Sister Sage

The Standup Sisters project recognizes women of faith by offering them a platform to share their stories. In this post, Unabridged Press’ founder shares a story of a sister who she looked up to. 

Monica Sheeran was my first nun friend. She called me her “young friend,” and she was my sage. What sealed the deal, from the first meeting, was her laugh. 

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Sister Monica Sheeran and the author, in 2001.

We met one night after a joy-filled Catholic Worker Mass and meal in Albany, New York. The petite white-haired sister introduced herself and flashed her welcoming smile to me and another friend of mine. After my friend teased Monica for something, the sister responded in kind with a playful light whack with a rolled newspaper at my friend’s shoulder. Sister Monica gave us a wicked laugh that had all of us giggling. And I felt that great happy spark of a new friendship.

A letter Sister Monica wrote me years later offers a taste of her humor, and her delight with technology: “I have got quite skilled in scanning photos…One good thing about photos scanned, they hide the blemishes!!”

I learned quickly from Sister Monica that life as a Catholic sister left room for a little irreverence, and for a lot of joy. She was the woman who taught me that, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” She used this passage when she occasionally drove through yellow lights. In her gentle British accent, she’d say, “Hello, Amber,” and give a Queen’s wave to the changing light as she passed.

Sister Monica and I weren’t always laughing. We both frequently considered how we could help withMonica the difficult problems in the world–though she did more to that end than me. For decades, Sister Monica was a missionary in Kenya and the Philippines, teaching orphan children how to read, write, and put on plays. She was in the religious order based in England known as the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of St. Joseph. A shared interest in speaking out against injustices is how we found ourselves at the Catholic Worker that night, praying for prisoners, the homeless, the drug-addicted, the lost.

Though Sister Monica was a bit more than 40 years older than me, using the word “sister” to address her felt true as any biological kinship. We shared an easy, deep give-and-take in discussing the news of the day, movies, art, dancing, writing, and love. Despite her years of experience, she never pulled rank.

For a while, Sister Monica and I saw each other at least weekly at Sunday Mass. We’d sit together and sing together. At the end, we’d exchange a big manila envelope with notes we’d written each other during the week, usually attached to clippings of inspiring articles we’d read.  Monica also put her poetry in these envelopes. At the time we met, I was writing and editing for The Associated Press. Sister Monica challenged me to more creative writing projects. She would instruct me to go through my writing line-by-line with a pencil crossing out the unnecessary words. Given my high opinion of my work at the time, I found it a little insulting. But if you knew Monica, you listened. Her kindness commanded it.

Without saying so, Monica also taught me how to sit and shut up. That is, she introduced me to the form of quiet contemplative prayer known as centering. It was something I greatly needed then, and now. Sometimes she sat with me in a parked car with the windows down near a little pond and closed our eyes and sat quietly, before walking around the water. Or she’d visit me in my apartment and we’d sit on my couch and do our centering prayer. Often had some wonderful spiritual insights she’d share with me after the quiet time. I typically had NO big thoughts, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that her prayer life was much deeper than my own. We were friends and you accept your friends where they are. You learn from each other. She taught me to pray, and I taught her how to set up an e-mail account.

The friend who first met Sister Monica with me often said, “I need a Monica,” or “I want a sister-friend.” I dismissed my friend and told her to go out and look for one, but the truth is, sisters aren’t that easy to find. And you have to find a retired one to have time for such an intimate friendship. But I hope that sisters do reach out to lay people like me. Because her laugh, our friendship opened a door to a great spiritual flowering in me. Later, I was able to return the favor and ignite spiritual development in her. After I’d returned from a weeklong silent retreat, Monica wrote:

“Your reflections on Christ, comparing your retreat to a honeymoon, very very deeply moving. They inspire me. I will take them with me as I go for my retreat-cum-holiday…I will try to make it a very belated honeymoon with Christ!!”

Eventually, both Sister Monica and I moved from Albany. As sisters do when age makes work more difficult, she returned to her home. Once I was able to visit her in England. I got to stay at the convent with Sister Monica and her sister. One night we visited an Islamic mosque for an interfaith peace gathering. And during my visit, we went to Mass at the convent and quietly did our centering prayer.

Later, friendship became more challenging. Monica had various illnesses that made it hard for her to look at a computer screen, much less write. So I called. I felt uncomfortable speaking of my full and active life when she was practically bedridden, but she wanted to hear all about it. She was a very good listener. She wanted me to experience true joy–what she defined as the hallmark of finding one’s calling.

I knew that one day I would phone her and she would no longer be able to talk. I had made a point of calling her the day after Christmas for several years. But in 2014, I had a feeling that she may not be around anymore. I Googled her name, and found an obituary online. Actually it was something she’d written, a reflection of her life. Monica did like to write–and it was clear she wanted to have the last words.

She wrote in the third person: “Monica learned to laugh at herself; to be very serious about what really mattered, yet not solemn, by God’s grace.”

And then there was my favorite part of her final words…

“At my death, I bequeath any part of my spirit to anyone who wants it!”

It was perfectly Sister Monica. And I wanted my share of her inheritance. I imagined myself reaching into the air and snatching up a piece of her now limitless spirit. I took a walk just as we did during my winter visit to England, together imagining the daffodils and other flowers of spring that would come soon–all “higgeldy-piggeldy,” as she said. And I laughed and loved the thought that now, she’d always be laughing with me, closer than we’d ever been.

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‘The Most Fortunate of Women’ at 91

10382057_810879235669959_3027182156348654087_oNinety-one-year-old Helen Baney’s officially retired from working with Allentown’s commercial leaders, but she’s still often dressed for business.

On a recent afternoon, Mrs. Baney donned sling-back pumps and a silky ladybug print scarf with a classic skirt and blouse as she welcomed a reporter into her home. Yet despite Mrs. Baney’s classy propriety, the conversation quickly gets intimate–she’s open and witty whether discussing the difficult or charmed parts of her life.

“A woman who tells her age will tell anything,” she says.

During our visit, Mrs. Baney serves pistachio pudding in parfait cups. We sit side-by-side facing a large window overlooking the slope toward downtown Pittsburgh. Allentown is a community some deride as challenged these days, but she talks about it with fearlessness.

“The advice I would have is get out there,” she says. “It’s a world of people and things to meet and to do and to find out how interesting life can be. And I don’t need the soap operas and I don’t need television to tell me that. It’s all around me if I really want to take advantage of it.”

Mrs. Baney’s mother served as a great example of making the most of life even when it got tough.

“When I was 14, my mother and father and I came up to Excelsior Street to take care of my grandfather who owned the house next door,” she says. “My father and my grandfather both died within six months of each other and left my mother a widow with me, an only child.

“It was still during the Depression. And my mother was a very clever, smart, intelligent woman who knew she was going to have to make her way in the world one way or the other and decided to buy this house with some of her money and some my grandfather had left me–a trust fund. So we purchased this house in May of 1941. And rented out the second and third floor to pay for the mortgage. And we lived on the first floor. I never moved. I got married and had my children here.”

Mrs. Baney’s mother encouraged a certain courage by thrusting her into a center-stage personality early on.

“My mother pushed me as a youngster,” she says. “I had to sing for the (school) classes when I was in the second grade. And my mother used to teach me German songs so I could sing German songs in a German school. That was kissing up to the nuns is what it’s called. If I was ever shy or backward it was completely covered up by my mother deciding that you had to perform or present yourself. After you get into that, then it’s like anything else-‘Hey, here I am.'”

She maintained the same outgoing traits into high school where she met her husband.

“It was only, I guess, when we were in 11th and 12th grade (he was a year older),” she says. “That was a very small school. It was a very close-knit community. You danced together, we had socials, and before you know it, somebody’d ask you out on a date and I never said no.”

11130153_810879255669957_2708513517081263423_oHer late husband worked his way up to be a vice president at Mosebach Electric Supply. Long before the phrase, “It takes a village” was in fashion, the Baneys lived it. Helen Baney’s role was at the center of the home.

“When I was young and married there was usually at least six people if not eight people that lived in this house,” she says. “I did all the cooking, the washing, the ironing, the cleaning. My mother worked, she had to. Then when I graduated, I got a job. Then I got married and had a daughter about two years later. And then another one came along in 16 months. And then I decided I was going to be the parent. There wasn’t going to be somebody on the outside raising my children.”

One of her house rules was no interruptions allowed during dinner–no television, no phones.

“We all sat at the table and we spoke,” she says. “And I said there’s nothing like putting a meal in a kid’s stomach and having the tongue get loose. I found out more things that went on that they never would have told me one-on-one. Or when you get them together (and one tells another) ‘Ha ha, I did that.’ And you listen.”

When the children grew up, and Mrs. Baney’s marriage got difficult, she engaged more in the world outside her home.

“I’ve been involved with Allentown and organizations since 1973,” she says. “I started with the Hilltop Civic Improvement Association. Which was organized by the businessmen … and I was their secretary. I went to Allentown Civic Improvement.”

The community was changing as suburban life and malls became attractive and businesses and other gathering places closed.

“When you take churches and schools out of communities…you lose young people, and that’s what you need to keep a neighborhood or a community vibrant,” she says. “You need young people. And you need young children. That’s another thing that I find with senior citizens. They’re so unhappy with children who run and scream. That’s what you’re a child for–to get it out of your system. You’ll grow up to be cranky and crotchety anyway.”

Mrs. Baney’s civic work included hosting meetings to encourage civic participation. She found people weren’t particularly excited about joining her.

“When I grew up during the Depression, and nobody had anything and we were poor, people seemed to be so happy because whatever they did get made their life just a little bit better,” she says. “And you had more community spirit. Now everybody stays in, and I know television has a lot to do with that. When we would have meetings, to get the people to come out and listen… We provided meals, we provided food, snacks…you cannot get people to come to a meeting.”

But she stuck with it.10987367_810879249003291_4048684572029842842_o

“I like being around people,” Mrs. Baney says. “I love knowing what’s going on.”

Allentown hasn’t rebounded yet, but there are certainly signs of life.

“I’ve been waiting 40-some years for Allentown to come back,” she says. “Will I live to see it? I don’t know. I don’t want Allentown to be what it was when I grew up. And that’s usually the cry if you go to a meeting, ‘Oh, remember when we had this.’ We don’t have those things. People don’t want those things…The next generation has totally different ideas of their wants and needs. I would love to see a really nice grocery store. I would love to see a bakery….A brewery–great! You know, things that would draw young people with imagination and a desire to say, ‘Hey this is not a bad place. Why don’t we investigate and look into making it into our home?'”

But no matter which direction Allentown takes, Mrs. Baney has been fulfilled by her part in it, in keeping up her home in the community, and often continuing to attend meetings, though no longer in leadership. She eschewed a recent trip to Disney with her children and grandchildren. She’s content surrounded by the quilts she’s made and her collection of wedding dresses gathered from thrift stores and displayed through the bedrooms.

Someone commented on her latter half of life as a widow recently and she says she told them, “I am the most fortunate of women. I have had 22 years of so much happiness and good fun and friends that I don’t want to see it come to an end and it will eventually. But I am very, very lucky.”

This article and photos, both by Jennifer Szweda Jordan,  first appeared in the South Pittsburgh Reporter. To see more of Ms. Jordan’s writing in that publication, click here

Standup Sisters: All Together Now


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All too often in pop culture, nuns are portrayed as silly or strict–think of the windup toy sister with the ruler and angry face. But many Catholic sisters today are women of exemplary courage, faith, and charity.

Standup Sisters is Unabridged Press’ effort to highlight the contributions of these extraordinary women by giving them a stage to tell their stories. Catholic women have been instrumental in forming founder Jennifer Szweda Jordan’s interest in documenting stories about the environment, social justice, and spirituality.   

“In every area where social progress is desperately needed–human trafficking, immigration, homelessness–sisters are working creatively to help those in need,” says Jordan. “While some girls or young women may hear the sisters’ stories and be inspired to lives of service as sisters, perhaps other listeners will be inspired to start a garden, or to reach out to a refugee family.”  Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 5.42.58 PM

Following the success of public storytelling events like The Moth, Standup Sisters’ launched with a live event. The kickoff took place in March, at St. Sylvester’s Church in Pittsburgh. Most of the audience of 125 people were children from the church–many said they had never met a sister. With the support of a grant from National Catholic Sisters Week funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, we commissioned the design of a logo, and gave out temporary tattoos so the event audience could walk away with a conversation piece and keep the Standup Sisters story going.

The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill were featured in this event, which was recorded and distributed online. All four episodes are found on this page.

“We rarely toot our own horns,” Sister Barbara Einloth told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Peter Smith, who covered the project. “That might be a good thing and humble, but it doesn’t help people know who we are and what we do. This is an opportunity for people to get to know who we are.”

Unabridged Press is seeking funding and partnerships to continue Standup Sisters. To find out more about how to help continue this important work, contact jennifer@unabridgedpress.com or 412-200-2017.

The storyteller sisters are:

Sister Rosemary Donley, PhD. She holds Duquesne University’s Jacques Laval Chair for Social Justice  for Vulnerable Populations in the School of Nursing. She was named a living legend by the Academy of Nursing in 2009.

Sister Barbara Einloth. She’s one of five women leading the U.S. Province of the Sisters of Charity, giving particular attention to issues of social justice.

Sister Mary Clark. Clark is a longtime English teacher, Hospice and parish minister.

Sister Barbara Boss. She heads the Seton Center, providing innovative child and adult care, and performing arts programming. Boss has doubled as a beautician for her sisters every Saturday for the last 30 years.

‘That’s Not Islam, That’s Like Psychopaths’: Spirited Conversations

In recognition of Islam’s holy days of Ramadan, Unabridged Press offers a recorded conversation with Muslim convert Christine Mohamed. It’s part of an occasional series about everyday faith called Spirited Conversations. Please click the SoundCloud player to listen to this unusual story of an American woman who grew up Catholic and who now worships at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.

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Christine Mohamed, at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. Photo: J.S. Jordan.

When Pittsburgher Christine Mohamed converted to Islam several years ago, her Catholic mom was embarrassed to be seen with her daughter, who now dressed in headscarves and long skirts. Mohamed’s dad, a Desert Storm vet, was quick to accept his daughter’s choice. But, all told, Mohamed walked a tough road. She lost friends.

“When I first converted, it was not a pretty sight,” Mohamed says.

Study and prayer drew Mohamed, an advertising professional, to Islam. It was an emotional time. Her decision probably couldn’t have come at a more challenging time to be Muslim in America. After all, the faith has been a source of confusion and fear for many in the U.S. in these days after 9/11, Boko Haram, ISIS, and now the mass shooting in Orlando. Mohamed says those who have been so violent aren’t even really following Islam. So part of Mohamed’s life’s work now is helping converts like her through the transition, and helping the public understand her brand of faith.

“You just have to…make sure that the education is out there and available to people, so next time they see something like this, they say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s definitely not Islam. That’s like, psychopaths,’ and be able to tell the difference,” Mohamed says.

Mohamed sometimes responds to bad press involving Muslims in simple ways–by helping out at a soup kitchen, for example.

“I just try to change the perception by going out to make sure I do something good in my faith,” she says. Going out of my way to be kind and courteous, so people can say, ‘Hey, yeah, I met a Muslim once and she was really nice.'”

At the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, where Mohamed worships, the outreach group she’s part of offers interfaith potlucks, campus lectures, school presentations, church and synagogue discussion meetings.

The outreach is working, at least in Mohamed’s own life. These days Mohamed’s mom has accepted her daughter’s practices and even attends the Islamic Center’s picnics. Mohamed married a Muslim man and they’re raising their children in the faith.

Even after the deadly shooting took place at the hands of Muslim Omar Mateen at a gay dance club in Orlando, Mohamed–characteristically–saw an opening for public conversation.

“The Orlando massacre is absolutely horrible,” Mohamed says, and yet, “It has opened the doorway to many questions concerning homosexuality and Islam. Heck, it has opened the doors in all faiths that typically are not approving of that lifestyle. We are all human beings, it’s sad that some feel certain lives don’t matter.”

Please listen to the recorded audio to hear Mohamed speak about more challenges and blessings of her conversion–the difficulties she had with a more segregated relationship with men, the surprisingly tight sisterhood of women in her faith, and more.

 

 

The Tall One: Chosen to be a Nurse

When women entered religious life decades ago, they had little opportunity to choose their careers. So, sometimes they ended up in unexpected places.

For Sister Rosemary Donley, that worked out well.

Someone in the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill tapped Donley to become a nurse. She worked as a nurse, became a teacher of nurses, and she has spoken all over the world about nursing. She holds Duquesne University’s Jacques Laval Endowed Chair in Justice for Vulnerable Populations to educate health professionals about the needs of people who are disabled, poor, and otherwise challenged.

In the accompanying audio recording, Donley tells the story of how her storied career began.

This is part of Standup Sisters, a series of events and podcasts to shine a light on outstanding churchwomen. The idea is to move beyond the typical caricatures of nuns that are seen in Nunsense, Late Night Catechism, and Sister Act. Not that there aren’t truths and humor in those images, but, like all stereotypes, they present a narrow picture.

In the inaugural Standup Sisters event, four Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill shared their stories with an audience of young students and adults at St. Sylvester Church in Brentwood, Pennsylvania, during National Catholic Sisters Week.

The music by Bach in this episode was performed by cellist Jeanne Tupper, of Hot Metal Strings. Photograph by Ryan Haggerty. Funding for Standup Sisters came from National Catholic Sisters Week/Hilton Sisters Project.Standup Sisters JPG

Three more sisters stories from this event will be posted here weekly–as well as a story about sisters–over the next few weeks. So please comment, stop back again, and share.

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Long before LinkedIn, Sister Mary Theresa gave me my first professional “endorsement” at age 15.

At the time, Pittsburgh’s culture was still dominated by steelmaking and healthcare. Sister Mary Theresa was the first person to tell me that writing–the words churning in my mind and heart–could actually sustain a career.

I managed to support myself through writing. And 30 years later, it seems fitting to shine a media spotlight on the women like Sister Mary Theresa who shaped me–my sisters.

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I’m calling this effort Standup Sisters. Because for every iconic Mother Teresa, there are hundreds of Sister Mary Theresas. Their stories are worth telling in person and podcast. While many sisters have been teachers who’ve had a lifelong impact on students like me, other sisters have been part of American Civil Rights history. Some have been entrepreneurial–starting social service organizations and academic departments.

The Standup Sisters project will have a “soft launch” with an event in Pittsburgh during National Catholic Sisters Week, an annual celebration that takes place from March 8–14. Created to honor women religious, National Catholic Sisters Week is a series of events that organizers say “instruct, enlighten, and bring greater focus to the lives of these incredible women.”

The March 14 event will feature Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, the same congregation that inspired me in high school, and that taught two of my aunts at the sisters’ Greensburg college (now university). I’m looking forward to being inspired by the Sisters of Charity in new ways myself.

The Standup Sisters pilot event is supported by a mini-grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The hotel magnate with a hard-scrabble upbringing was also deeply influenced by Catholic sisters and his foundation supports sisters, and media about their work.

Stop back for updates!

And pray for this effort if you would!